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Bastien turned 30 on Friday. The big 3-0. It was a low key birthday celebration, no dancing til dawn or next-day hangovers as there surely were 10 years ago. But there was plenty of good food, good wine (a bottle of Perle d’Antan from la Tronque, his family’s vineyard, arrived in the mail), kayaking and sunshine on the menu. And a big cadeau waiting for him–a new camera!

No, no. Not the Polaroid in the picture. That was just for presentation purposes. B’s first DSLR camera. The kind that you jauntily sling over your shoulder because it won’t fit in your pocket or your purse. The kind that makes people look at you twice and think, Now there’s a photographer. The kind that says, Let’s get serious or I mean business.

And, I hope, the kind that will take great pictures for our blog!

As with most high-end gadgets, there can be a steep learning curve at the beginning. But as always, Bastien just dove right in. He had already learned a ton from every photography blog, review, YouTube video, and personal scrap of advice he could get his hands on over the past month (and no matter how hard I tried to throw him off track and maintain the surprise, he was pretty convinced there was a camera coming his way; apparently I’m no good at hiding these things).

Now, with camera in hand, it is just a matter of practice and of trial and error.

Out in the garden, I thought he was taking pictures of our flowering tomato plants…

…but the new camera has a wide angle lens (and a sneaky photographer behind it), and it turns out he also caught me talking to the tomatoes! Grow little ones, grow! And produce lots of sweet, juicy fruit!

Apparently, there is no subject too small or too banal when one is practicing with a new camera.

Later, when I turned around at the dinner table and ooohed and aaahed at the purple and rose sky out the window behind me, B was out the door like a shot, without a second’s hesitation. I remember as a kid, well before the days of digital cameras, when my dad would blow through an entire roll of film on a single sunset. He would try to capture every angle, every color nuance, every pink cloud. We must have boxes of those slides and snapshots and negatives collecting dust up in the attic. But when I see a sunset like this, I get why he was so snap happy. Truly. What great light to experiment with.

Look at those stunning colors. There’re almost unreal.

We couldn’t take the camera kayaking, but there will be plenty of other summer trips and visits to document before long. And the progress of the garden and the guest room/office. And summer recipes. Many more photos coming your way soon!

Newly minted

My culinary obsession of the week? Mint! Actually, it might just be a culinary obsession period.

Last Spring we discovered a patch of the stuff growing among leaves of lemon balm in our backyard. This was before we planted our garden and before we noticed all the fruit trees in our midst. We were so excited by our finding — something from our own land that we could cook with and eat! — that we had to restrain ourselves from denuding the entire patch. But even after the satisfaction of planting a garden and seeing pears, plums, figs, and olives swell and ripen on the trees around our house, the mint is still exciting to me. I can’t seem to get enough of the peppery sweet aroma and the way it melds so well with both desserts and savory dishes.

Here are some ideas for minting up your day:

Morning pick-me up: Mint infusion. Steep a sprig or two of mint leaves in near-boiling water. Sweeten with honey or cane sugar or just enjoy as is.

Lazy afternoon on the porch swing: Mint Julep. If you didn’t watch the Kentucky Derby this year (or any year for that matter), it’s not too late for a mint julep. Try this recipe from Saveur.

Springtime side dish: Jacques Pépin’s purée of peas with mint and cilantro. This was my first savory mint preparation last year, and I loved it so much I must have made it as a side dish twice a week for at least a month or two. Spring peas are here, and if you can find them at your local farmers’ market, this dish will taste that much better. See below for the how to.

Savory salad: Quinoa salad with feta and mint. I’ve been trying to incorporate different grains into our diet, and I concocted this salad for lunch last week. It was so tasty, I’ll be making it again this week, too! Find the recipe below.

Purée of peas with mint and cilantro

Adapted slightly from Jacques Pépin’s Fast Food My Way

Serves 4

1 pound baby peas (fresh or frozen)

½ cup (loosely packed) fresh mint leaves

½ cup (loosely packed) fresh cilantro leaves

About 2 teaspoons chopped jalapeño pepper (more or less, depending on your tolerance)*

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon good olive oil

1. Bring 3 cups salted water to a boil. Add the peas and return to a boil, which will take 3 to 4 minutes. Boil gently for 1 ½ minutes, then drain in a colander, reserving a few spoonfuls of the cooking liquid.

2. Immediately transfer the peas to a food processor and add the remaining ingredients and up to 2 tablespoons of the reserved cooking liquid, if the mixture is too thick to purée properly. Process to a fine purée.

3. Serve immediately, or if the purée is made ahead, reheat with a few tablespoons of water or broth in a small sauces pan.

(*Being a wimp when it comes to heat, I leave the jalapeños out entirely.)

Quinoa salad with feta and mint

Serves 4-6

1 cup quinoa

1/2 cup chopped French feta

1/2 to one whole avocado

1/2 cucumber cut into 1/2″ cubes

1/2 bulb finely sliced fresh fennel

1/4 of a red onion, finely chopped

1/2 cup frozen peas (fresh if you have them)

1/2 cup broccoli sprouts (or other sprouts)

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh mint

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro

small handful of sunflower seeds

salt and pepper to taste

1. Combine the quinoa with 2 cups water, salt, and pepper in a medium sauce pan and turn the heat to high. Bring to a boil, cover, lower the heat and simmer gently for about 15 minutes. When the quinoa is tender, remove from heat and let cool.

2. Make a vinaigrette in a salad bowl. Everyone has their own ideas about what they like, but here’s the one I’d recommend. With a whisk or a fork, mix together 1 tsp good Dijon mustard, a large pinch of salt and pepper, and 2-3 tsp white wine vinegar until mix is uniform. Add olive oil to your liking. I prefer to use less, as I like a strong taste of vinegar and the mustard.

3. Add the quinoa, the feta, the vegetables, and the herbs to the bowl and mix. Salt and pepper to taste.

Office Space

After over a year of writing from our kitchen table or the couch or in bed, I finally decided that we were in need of a desk. ‘Let’s get organized!’ as my grandfather loved to say.

As with most house projects, though, the office/guest room is a work in progress. Here’s what it looked like when we moved in a year ago:

We’ve made it past the ladder to a bed and now a little office nook, but I think in my effort to get organized (i.e. reshelving books, making hanging files, finally recycling a large pile of junk mail, etc.), I’ve managed to create a scene of complete disorganization (well hidden from view).

Oops.

I opened up a can of worms with those hanging files when I decided we needed to paint the $5 thrift store filing cabinet (turquoise!). A project within a project spells one thing and one thing only: sloooow progress.

In the meantime, we have a desk to write on. And a view of the roses.

What are your best tips for a well organized home office? And don’t you think we need a comfy reading chair? That corner is begging for one!

Last year I wrote horror stories about armies of ants marching across our kitchen countertops, villainous gophers ravaging our lovingly tended tomatoes, stinky skunks cavorting under the house, and audacious rats setting up camp in the wisteria on our porch. But we also share our property with a few critters we love and who make us smile whenever they come out to see us…

Bogie, blind and bashful

Marley, the playful spinster (and gopher catcher!)

Hummingbirds, we never get tired of watching them!

For Mom, 1945-2011

For as long as I can remember, one of my mom’s pecadillos was “snitching” flowers from other peoples’ gardens. My mom was so enchanted with “posies” that she somehow looked beyond (or perhaps overlooked) the possible accusations of trespassing and theft for denuding precious blooming beds. For years she clipped daffodils and irises and roses from our neighbor–a reknowned horticulturist, no less!–until, instead of being confronted and banished from his garden, she was given “picking rights”!

One of the best stories of her little péché mignon takes place in a tiny hilltown in the back country of Nice, France. As the story goes, strolling along the cobbled streets of this miniscule medieval village, Mom spotted a rose. There was no purpose for the rose, no arrangement it was headed for, it was just simply too lovely to be left on its branch. And there was no stopping her. Though I wasn’t there, I’m sure she didn’t hesitate for a second in snapping the bud off its bush and sticking her nose deep into the pink petals. The next day, as she and my dad ambled along the same allée, they saw a little girl, walking hand-in-hand with her grandmother. As they passed, the petite fille whispered loudly, “Mamie, c’est celle qui vole des fleurs!” (Granny, that’s the one who steals flowers!).

Yesterday, on Mother’s Day, there were no Hallmark cards to send or phone calls to make, so instead Bastien and I planted a different sort of garden. In her honor.

Cherry tomatoes and purple egglplants and sweet peppers will be our blossoms this summer. (And this time, we’re gopher ready! Watch out gophers! More on that later….) And we’ll think of Mom as our garden grows and blooms, wishing she were here. I know she’d like that.

Mom at age 11, Sausalito, CA (circa 1956)

Mom in her garden last summer, Newton, MA

Jill McKeever Mercer (January 17, 1945 to March 5, 2011)

And we’re back…

Coming up roses, from our Drytown garden

Testing, testing. 1, 2, 3. Hello? Hello? Anyone out there? It’s awfully quiet around here!

So it turns out that maintaining a blog isn’t so easy after all. Coming up with regular content, taking and uploading good photos, dealing with formatting issues, responding to masses of fan mail, and sifting through multi-million dollar publishing advances and book offers is hard work!

Oh wait, that’s the dream blog.

But a regular old blog is still hard work, and keeping it going requires time, patience, inspiration and real diligence. I’d like to think that I have just enough of each one of those to keep this blog alive after 8 1/2 months of silence. So here we are, testing the waters again, back with more adventures from Drytown and tales from the Wild West. There’s been a lot going on and things aren’t quite the same as when we left off last August, but we’ll get to all that later. For now I’ll just say, thanks for reading and stay tuned for more!

Jam session

my neighbor's plum tree, ready for picking

plums by the bucketful

I feel really lucky to be in California this year, where fruit trees abound and sometimes even grow like weeds. In our neighborhood alone, there are plums, figs, pears, apples, cherries, quince, olives, lemons, oranges, grapes, elderberry, walnut, and probably a host of others I’ve neglected to mention or have yet to discover.

Growing up in New England, I missed out on the pleasure of plucking ripe, juicy fruit from my own backyard. My mother would recount stories of picking grapefruit for breakfast at her grandparents’ home in Palm Springs in the 1950s, but that image always seemed like a fairy tale to me. Back on the East Coast, we had raspberries behind our house and blackberries across the street, but their seasons were short and their production minimal. Our neighbor, well-known horticulturist and long-time host of PBS’ The Victory Garden, Roger Swain, had the only pear tree in the neighborhood, grew beds of strawberries that we’d sneak over to pick one or two (or three or four!) of, and cultivated kiwis (among many other fruits and vegetables) on his New Hampshire farm. But aside from Roger’s occasional kind delivery of ruby rhubarb or bitter kumquats or shiny, Fall apples, we were largely dependent on the supermarket and now, thankfully, on the farmers’ market for any sort of summertime bounty.

So when I landed out in California, America’s agricultural mecca, I nearly jumped for joy when I saw all this fruit. Much to my surprise, most of it is left unpicked, and neighbors will generously donate not only the fruit but also baskets, buckets, ladders, and their time and labor to help pick. That is how we ended up, most recently, with four giant bucketfuls of delicious plums…with at least 20 times more waiting for us on the tree!

But what does one do with all this fruit?! Jam for one. We now have a pantry stocked with strawberry, apricot, peach, and plum (2 varieties) jam as well as orange marmalade. Next up is peach plum chutney. And then a plum sorbet. Maybe some fruit in syrup or a compote are in order, as well. But there’s only so much time and only so many burners on my stove!

My recommendation to you: get yourself to the nearest fruit tree, fruit stand, or farmers’ market for some of summer’s bounty. Come January, you’ll be happy you did!